The Law From Here: What is Legal Research like in Venezuela?

by Mariana Griffiths, LLM Candidate

Welcome to another installment of The Law From Here, our globe-trotting series that gives you a chance to get to know GSU Law’s LLM students. Like many of our LLM students, Mariana Griffiths has considerable experience researching the law of another country–here, Venezuela. In Venezuela, Mariana worked as a legal coordinator. Currently, she works as corporate legal supervisor at UPS while she finishes up her LLM degree at GSU. In today’s The Law From Here, she offers her insights into legal research in the Venezuelan legal system, and how it compares (so far) to researching the law in the United States.

I received my law degree in Caracas, Venezuela at the Universidad Metropolitana or Metropolitan University at the age of 23 years old after finishing high school. In Venezuela it is not required: (1) to pursue an undergraduate degree before applying and start law school; (2) take a bar to practice law. As soon as you receive your law degree in Venezuela, you are licensed to practice nationwide if you register yourself with the Institute of Lawyers and obtain the registration number (which is equivalent to a bar number). However, there is no such requirement of passing the bar in the state where the attorney intends to practice law.

Mariana Griffiths

Venezuela’s legal system is governed by civil law, which is a codified system, meaning that the law is written and organized in codes for each area of the law. Venezuela is a centralized federalism in reality, but constitutionally it is a “Democratic and Social State of Law and Justice which holds as superior values of its legal order an actions those of life, liberty, justice equality solidarity, democracy, social responsibility and, in general the preeminence of human rights, ethics and political pluralism,” Constitución de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela [VE][Constitution]Feb. 19, 2009, Title I, art. 2

The U.S. and Venezuelan flags.

Even though case law is not usually considered a fundamental source of law in Venezuela’s legal system, judicial decisions have become more important in many areas. In particular, there are important decisions regarding public matters such as use of public land, eminent domain (called ‘expropriations’), and infrastructure. The most important cases are the ones decided by the Supreme Court of Justice, which is Venezuela’s equivalent of the Supreme Court of the United States, although there are quite a few differences in composition and operation. The Supreme Court of Justice’s decisions are more likely to be published and create precedents for specific legal issues. However, although that court’s decisions are the most prominent, for case law research, there is no strict rule of hierarchy.

The Constitution in Venezuela is the supreme law of the land, and in the hierarchy of the laws, it is at the same tier as international treaties and agreements. Below, there are the codes and laws enacted by the Legislative Power and the Law Decrees issued by the President, which can be related to any matter, at any time, without any restriction, whether there is a national emergency or not. These decrees often include modifications to current law, which makes practicing law in Venezuela very challenging. It is important to note that in the last twenty years, the numbers of decrees has increased considerably as a way to escape the legislative process. These decrees usually strike down one or more segments of the law in question, as an amendment, which means the attorneys must research different decrees and other sources in order to discern the valid statutory law. Perhaps an analogy can explain it better—it is akin to ‘shepardizing’ case law in the United States.

Before endeavoring to contrast the common law and civil law systems of the U.S. and Venezuela, respectively, it is important to note that both systems have evolved with society’s technological and legal changes. Civil law countries have been relying on case law and using precedent to maintain uniformity in the judicial system, which helps to limit frivolous lawsuits and provides a reference for practicing litigant attorneys. And common law countries use precedent to identify potential areas of the law where statutory law is needed for the same reasons, and for the efficiency of the judicial system.

In Venezuela, like in the United States, there is a  separation of powers. However, this is a similarity with a distinction, since Venezuela’s government has five branches: legislative, executive, judicial, citizen and electoral. This separation of powers of five branches is included in an amendment to the Venezuelan Constitution. In contrast, the United State maintains the classic separation of powers with three branches, characterized by the element of check and balances.

The interaction and relationship between federal and state law is also quite different. In Venezuela, even though each state is autonomous, the codified law apply to all the states. Not all the states even have written constitutions or different laws. States do issue ordinances (at the level of administrative agencies) for local matters such as traffic, business licenses and use of the land, but they do not occupy the same legal space as the federal law. In some ways, this is a simpler system than what we find with the overlapping systems of federal and state law that characterize the United States.

As you might expect, these differences add up, and legal research in Venezuela is pretty different. First, you need to know that, when researching the law in Venezuela, you won’t likely find all of the key primary sources in any one single place, like you do in the U.S. when using Westlaw of Lexis. There is a company called Microjuris that provides some resources for legal research similar to what you might see on those platforms, but it is less complete and less sophisticated. More importantly, Microjuris is not always up-to-date and has an outdated design that, personally, I do not find be user-friendly.

Second, the number of executive decrees which modify the codified law is enormous. Sometimes, in one month, there are more than twenty! That means it is important that means you be up-to-date, which you can ensure by checking the Gazette Official published by the Supreme Court of Justice (the “Tribunal Supremo de Justicia”). Generally, it is a large file; the good news is that it is available online.

Third, because it is a codified law system, legal professionals base their research on the civil codes as primary sources. To support their arguments for a legal memo or for a case in litigation, the use of jurisprudence to supplement the civil codes is critical. There are reputable and well-known authors for each subject, often former judges or academic teacher.

These differences in their countries’ legal systems have a big impact on the way that attorneys research the law in Venezuela and the United States. Although case law is less prominent in Venezuelan law, the added wrinkle of ensuring your research of decrees is up-to-date adds to the challenge of researching Venezuelan, as does the unavailability of a comprehensive or user-friendly service for doing legal research online.

The Law From Here⁠— Legal Research in the U.S. and Brazil

by Alceu Mauricio Junior[i]

Welcome to the first installment of The Law From Here, our globe-trotting new series that gives you a chance to get to know GSU Law’s LLM students. Like many of our LLM students, Alceu Mauricio Junior has a distinctive background that features ample experience practicing law in another country–here, Brazil. However, even amongst this rarified group, Mauricio stands out because he is an experienced judge with several postgraduate degrees. In today’s The Law From Here, he offers his insights into legal research in the Brazilian system, and how it compares to the United States.

Having worked as a judge in Brazil for more than twenty years, I enrolled in the LL.M. Program at Georgia State University (GSU) in 2021. I thought the GSU LL.M. Program would be interesting not only because it opens a door to apply for the Bar Exam in some U.S. jurisdictions, but also because it would widen my perspective on how to view, study, and apply the law, either here in the U.S. or in Brazil.

Alceu Mauricio Junior

While studying the law in a common law country and in a different language, it is almost impossible not to set the mind in a mode of comparison. The whole learning process is triggered by focusing on what is similar and different, and how I would express a legal concept in English versus Portuguese (my native language). My goal in this post is sharing my comparative perspective on legal research, presenting a picture of what Brazilian and U.S. lawyers could expect while researching the law in a country with a different legal tradition

Contextualizing the Brazilian Legal System

Lawyers, being pragmatic professionals, naturally want to draft persuasive arguments and accurately predict outcomes in legal disputes. To do so, they need to find and select the most important authorities, in other words, the authorities that are most likely to guide judges’ and government officials’ decisions. As Brazil and the United States are on different sides of the civil law/common law spectrum, one could expect significant differences in how practitioners research the law in those countries.

Let me start by contextualizing Brazil and its legal system. Brazil has the third-largest economy in the Americas, following The United States and Canada. It has a population of more than 200 million people and has the fifth-largest territory globally. A former colony of Portugal with Portuguese as its official language, Brazil has been “a melting pot for a wide range of cultures.” Brazil is a federative republic, with a federal government, 26 states, and the Federal District. It has a presidential system and a bicameral federal legislative like the United States.

The Brazilian legal system follows the civil law tradition, while also adopting some common law doctrines. Brazil has a written Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land. The Constitution establishes separation of powers, federalism, and fundamental rights. It addresses several fields of law and has an extensive Bill of Rights. Though Brazil is a federation of relatively autonomous states, as in the United States, Brazilian law is centralized at the federal level. Congress has the exclusive power to legislate about contracts, family, crime, torts, trade, corporations, energy, and many other topics. Constitutional law and statutory law are the basis of the Brazilian legal system.

Case law plays a crucial role in legal reasoning and analysis in Brazil, and recent developments have adopted the stare decisis doctrine for some judicial decisions. However, even though precedent in Brazil may consolidate interpretations of the law, they do not create law, as courts must base their decisions on constitutional or statutory law. Nonetheless, courts have the power of judicial review and may invalidate unconstitutional statutes. Most case law has only persuasive authority, but judges follow decisions from higher courts as a common practice.

Brazil has federal and state courts and specialized independent court systems, such as labor, electoral, and military courts. At the top of the judicial system, the Federal Supreme Court (Supremo Tribunal Federal or STF) can hear appeals on constitutional matters, and has original jurisdiction over “direct actions,” challenging the constitutionality of statutes. There is also the Higher Court of Justice (Superior Tribunal de Justiça or STJ), which hears final appeals on the interpretation of federal statutory law.

Facade of the Federal Supreme Court. Photo: Dorivan Marinho/SCO/STF

Comparing Legal Research in Brazil and the U.S.

In some respects, researching the law in Brazil and the U.S is similar. When facing a new topic, lawyers first look at secondary sources and then continuously narrow their research looking at applicable codified law and case law. However, two main differences set apart legal research in the U.S. and Brazil: the use of electronic research tools and the relative weight of primary and secondary authority in legal reasoning.

A. Research Tools

In Brazil, practitioners do not have access to comprehensive legal research products such as Lexis+ or Westlaw Edge. Some paid legal research services offer access to databases of primary and secondary authorities, newsletters, and alerts on new statutory or case law. Examples of those services are Plataforma Forum and Revista dos Tribunais Online. As a judge in federal court, I have access to CAJU, a service provided by the Federal Justice Council with subscription to most of Brazilian legal databases of secondary authority, but like many other practitioners, I would mostly research secondary authority in treatises, which are the basis of legal education in Brazil.

In the U.S., after researching a treatises, I would use Lexis or Westlaw to access statutory and case law. In Brazil, I would access the Legislation Portal at the President’s Office website. At this portal, one can research the Constitution, the various codes, federal statutory law, and regulations. Unlike the United States, Brazil does not have a single code encompassing all federal statutory law. Brazil has eighteen different codes, one for each area of law, and thousands of non-codified statutes. Brazilian students devote a reasonable time in law school learning about the different codes and statutes that may apply in a specific area of law. After graduation, a good lawyer will follow the Legislation Portal’s daily newsletter. The Legislation Portal does not generally provide cross-references between statutes. The statutes are organized chronologically and not by area of law, as in the U.S Code. On the other hand, a lawyer can search the Portal using keywords. The Portal displays the legislation on pages searchable on the internet. All legislation on the Portal is up to date, and every document has references to modifying statutes or amendments.

After collecting information on the secondary sources and narrowing the applicable statutory law, a practitioner’s next step is usually researching case law. Once again, this step would be much simpler in the U.S. using Lexis or Westlaw. In Brazil, lawyers usually research case law using court’s individual websites, which offer handy and reliable free tools for researching case law, but not in a comprehensive, unified portal. In my practice, I would generally start at the Supreme Federal Court’s and Higher Court of Justice’s webpages for two primary reasons. First, in Brazil, federal and constitutional laws are often controlling. The Brazilian Constitution is extensive and has provisions related to several fields of law. So, even topics such as patent law or family law often come before the Supreme Court. Second, the higher courts in Brazil do not have discretionary certiorari procedures. Thus, the Brazilian higher courts receive and decide hundreds of cases every year, and there is a considerable chance of finding precedent helping my reasoning.

The courts’ websites offer handy and reliable free tools for researching case law. The Supreme Federal Court (STF), for instance, offers a search engine on which a lawyer can research cases using keywords. A case on that database may have specific references to secondary authority, codified law, and precedents cited in the opinion. However, different than Lexis or Westlaw, there is no yellow or red flags to show a case may have been overruled or received a negative treatment in a subsequent decision.

B. Legal Culture and the Weight of Authority

The second structural difference researching the law in the U.S. and Brazil is the relative weight of primary and secondary authority in legal reasoning. In the U.S., the framework of stare decisis lays a considerable weight on binding precedent. Precedent is also essential in Brazil, and some judicial decisions are binding authority. However, there is no general principle of stare decisis, and judicial decisions are binding only in particular instances, mostly related to Federal Supreme Court’s decisions on constitutional matters. Most of precedent in Brazil has mere persuasive value. Precedent from the Supreme Federal Court or the Higher Court of Justice has a powerful, persuasive force. A decision from an appellate court in the trial court’s jurisdiction also has a relevant persuasive power, but it is not necessarily more persuasive than a decision from a different appellate court. For instance, when I draft a decision in my court, I will research case law from the appellate court in my circuit. However, if the only on-point decision from my circuit is an old one, I could as well use a newer decision from a different circuit that better reflects the current law.

Higher Court of Justice (STJ) –Plenary of the 1st Section – Judgment Session. Photo: Sandra Fado, CC BY-ND

In addition, secondary sources may play a much more significant role in legal reasoning in Brazil than they would in the U.S. Treatises and law review articles do not have the same force as on-point precedent. However, they may have a similar if not greater persuasive appeal than judicial decisions that do not cover facts resembling the disputed case. This trend comes from the Brazilian legal culture and its civil law origin. While courts in the U.S. put a distinct value on legal certainty (which lays the foundation for the stare decisis doctrine), Brazilian courts tend to see justice in individual cases as a higher value. In practical terms, Brazilian courts are more willing to find distinguishing factors from precedent if they think justice would be better served, even at the expense of law’s predictability. Thus, when researching the law in Brazil, secondary sources play a role that goes beyond helping a lawyer find a roadmap for statutory and case law.

Final Remarks

My experience researching the law in the U.S. is still ripening, so drawing conclusions would be premature at this point. This post’s goal was to give lawyers from Brazil and the U.S. an idea of what they could expect while researching the law in a country with a different legal tradition. Legal research’s purpose does not change when we cross borders. Lawyers and courts need to find authoritative sources to support their arguments and assessments. However, how lawyers and courts research the law may vary from country to country. I noticed two main differences between researching the law in Brazil and the U.S. First, while legal researching in the U.S. predominantly relies on comprehensive paid research tools, in Brazil, research tools mainly used are free, official, non-integrated, online resources. Second, while stare decisis is a core, general principle of U.S. law, giving precedent the spotlight in legal reasoning and researching, precedent and secondary authorities may have similar weight in Brazil when there is no binding, on-point decision.

A question that remains open is whether those differences are independent. Maybe the comprehensive legal tools one can use in the U.S. only reflect a difference of technology and economic capacities, but maybe they exist primarily because the U.S. legal culture demands a precise analysis of precedent that is not required in Brazil. I would be only guessing trying to answer this question, but if I had to guess, I would put my money on legal culture being the most critical factor shaping differences in legal research.


[i] Alceu Mauricio Junior has been a Federal Judge in Brazil since 2001 and is currently an LL.M. candidate at Georgia State University College of Law. He holds a Ph.D. in constitutional law and has a master’s degree in public law. LinkedIn.

Research Smarter Not Harder

By Gilbert Morales, Reference GRA

During my 1L year, researching caselaw triggered instant anxiety. To me, conducting research was an overwhelming experience that was hard to manage. Thankfully, I was wrong. Yes, conducting research is tough, but it is manageable by taking advantage of resources made available by the library. 

An open computer sitting on top of a wooden table

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One invaluable resource is the library’s collection of research guides (also known as LibGuides). LibGuides essentially serve as a one-stop-shop for beginning your research process. They cover many major law school topics, including Georgia Legal Research, Criminal Law, and Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility. Students will find links to secondary sources like major journals, treatises, and even articles. 

Students will also see links to primary sources like the Georgia Code, the Federal Code, and local ordinances. What is neat about the guides is that they include tips and tricks to make research easier for you. For example, they provide direct links to secondary sources in Westlaw and LexisNexis so that researchers do not waste time trying to navigate those resources. 

As everyone knows, time is of the essence in law school. Research guides include different approaches to accessing resources, including links to research institutes and links to popular blogs that monitor the trends for any given topic. For example, in the Land Use guide, students are directed to the Wayback Machine to uncover website pages that are no longer available online. These tips and tricks are just the tips of the iceberg. Research guides are full of different ways to make the research experience easier and more productive. 

In addition to research material, LibGuides provide links to study materials. From evidence to tax law, students can access study aids, CALI lessons, and exam archives for each topic. The convenience of finding all the essential study aids in one location is truly a time saver. 

So, the next time you find yourself overwhelmed by the research experience, take a deep breath, and visit the LibGuides on the library website!